It was a golden path walked by the young Dare Okoudjou growing up in Benin. He came from a good family, a teacher father and nurse mother; he wanted for little and was able to study in Europe.
More than a decade ago, as a final year student for a Master’s in telecommunications engineering in Paris, Okoudjou had companies hounding him with lucrative job offers.
Engineering led him to New York and a job as an intern in the autumn of 1998. He was 22 years old.
“In those six months in New York, I realized I wanted to be part of a bigger plan, a bigger picture. There were a lot of offers from companies, such as Ericsson and Alcatel, but I didn’t like it there,” says Okoudjou.
The salaries in telecommunications were high and engineers were sought after, but the thought of working in the United States, far from Africa, terrified Okoudjou.
“Nineteen ninety nine was the boom of the dotcom. I was one of the first people who knew the stuff. At that time, a lot people had not heard about internet in Africa, I was an engineer of it,” says Okoudjou.
Instead, he accepted a job as a consultant in telecommunications and media at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Paris in 1999 hoping it would lead home. He says the French were doing a lot of work in Africa. His first project was to launch a mobile network in Morocco. This was fortuitous. When Okoudjou finished school, at the top of the class in Benin, he went to an engineering scholarship in Morocco, for two years.
“At PwC, I met great people from different backgrounds but which I related to. We knew we were fortunate to be there. They were sensitive to the world around them. We shared the sense of responsibility towards the larger community. Then there was a lady who created a link between PwC and the world of NGOs,” says Okoudjou.
In 2001, he quit and joined an NGO in the north of Tanzania. The NGO looked after 30,000 people in a refugee camp in the highly populated Nyanga district.
“That was the time I heard the call of Africa. I felt I needed to do something more helpful to the people than sending money now and then to my parents,” he says.
“African people were going there [Europe] out of desperation, I was not. I was in quest of greatness. I wanted to be the best. I really enjoyed my years in Paris.”
In Tanzania, Okoudjou realized the hidden side of what he calls the business of NGOs. He regrets that the camps turned out businesses that compete to serve people but with no intention to liberate them. Their business was to keep people in the camps as long as they could, he laments.
“No offence to the [NGO] people, some people had great hearts. They wanted to help somehow but that very personal need to help translated into a situation which will maintain thousands of people in the same situation for a long time. The refugees were not allowed to work, as a result they would sell what was donated to them to the working villagers,” says Okoudjou.
“Trade business is better, it provides the right incentives. There are no hidden agendas. The whole NGO business has hidden motives, so I left the NGOs after two months and went back to PwC and later enrolled for an MBA in 2005.”
In 2005, the former Minister of Finance in South Africa, Trevor Manuel, addressed Okoudjou’s MBA classmates in Paris about opportunities that his country had. The idea of setting up in Johannesburg was born.
The following year, Okoudjou joined MTN in Johannesburg and worked in the mobile financial services section, also known as mobile money. This position allowed Okoudjou to travel Africa.
“When I was in Paris in August 2005, there was a small article about MTN mobile money. I knew then that was what I was looking for because it had all the elements. It’s about technology and I love technology. I knew money transfer inside out. We were students in France and people in Benin sent us money. When I was in France I sent money to Benin, but there were always people trying to rip us off. That’s when I wrote to MTN and said I wanted to come and work for them. By the end of 2008, I realized I wanted my own thing and that was mobile money transfer,” says Okoudjou.
It took Okoudjou six months to raise $500,000 and start his own money transfer company, with three people, in Johannesburg. This was a similar business that he managed for three years at MTN. For the next three years Mobile Financial Services Africa won plump contracts with cellphone networks. They grew from one branch in South Africa to more than 10 on the continent. Then disaster struck. The $2 million, raised by the end of 2011, dried up overnight.
“In May last year, it was so hard, I struggled paying salaries, I couldn’t pay my home electricity bill, and they cut it off. I am from Benin, I took it on the chin. We cooked outside on an open fire. I turned it into something fun for my kids,” says Okoudjou.
By June, despite the increasing pressure to salvage the sinking business, Okoudjou says he turned away several offers to sell a portion of the business, or form partnerships. The deals didn’t feel right.
Okoudjou forged ahead trying to save his business. He opened more branches and tried soliciting credible shareholders.
On a hot Friday evening in November, it got worse. Okoudjou’s flight at Abidjan International Airport, back to South Africa, was delayed for six hours. He had flown in to open a branch in Côte d’Ivoire even though his business was bleeding back home. While at the airport, a security company called to tell Okoudjou his house in Johannesburg had been broken into.
“I could hear my children crying. My wife was not there with them. I couldn’t reach her on her phone and I was sitting in that Abidjan airport without money and helpless. I have been trying to do this business for five years, but I failed. I drove this [business] to the ground, there’s nothing I could do… And I remembered I read somewhere: ‘There’s always a way. There must be a way,’” he says.
Okoudjou says in that moment of despair at the airport he took out a piece of paper and wrote all the things he should try and people he should call in the next month to plead for a lifeline.
His father Pierre-Claver Okoudjou is a retired philosophy teacher and a prolific French essay writer in Benin. He says at that lonely moment in Abidjan he took inspiration from his father’s essays.
For a month, Okoudjou worked hard to find investors to save his business. Now, it is safe with 10 shareholders and 20 employees on the continent.
“We are not completely out of the woods, we still have a mountain to climb,” he says.
That is the philosophy that emerges from the scars of a worst day when you suffer the tears of your children from far away.
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Burned But Not Broken; The Tale Of Fiery fashion
Don’t be fooled by his infectious smile and designer clothes; beneath his tough exterior is a layered story of depression and despair.
On a rainy autumn morning in Johannesburg in March, we meet Adrian Furstenburg in the small affluent suburb of Parkhurst.
Ironically, he is dressed in black – a symbol of grief – to recount the day when his design studio, including stock and equipment worth R70,000 ($5,800), burned and was razed to the ground.
“The damage was so painfully clear in the bright, winter morning light,” says Furstenburg.
To get to this story, it is important to start from the beginning.
Furstenburg was only four years old when he first said he wanted to become a fashion designer.
“I was at my granny’s house and we were watching a fashion show on television, and as we were watching, that is when I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life,” says Furstenburg.
However, his father, a farmer, had, other plans – he wanted him to pursue law.
Somehow, Furstenburg found a way to persuade his father to allow him to enter a career not so distant from the fashion industry.
“It was the early 2000s and it was pretty cool to study graphic designing, so he said ‘that’s okay, I will pay for you to study graphic designing’,” he says.
In his last year at college, he specialized in textile design, which led to him crafting a career as a handbag designer.
“I think that is one of the wisest decisions that I have ever made, there are definitely no regrets,” says Furstenburg today.
As part of a college assignment, he was required to do a practical project.
“I weaved this beautiful piece of fabric and then I actually made a handbag. This project is where my passion for handbags started,” he says.
After he graduated, he started freelancing as a designer and stylist, set on his journey of one day being a fashion mogul selling swanky handbags.
But his worst day was lurking around the corner, ready to throw him into a state of melancholy.
It was June 6, 2012.
“The day isn’t etched into my memory. I recall it from a much deeper, more visceral part than that,” he says.
He and his business partner at the time, Nkululeko Msibi, of 2souls clothing, had recently set up a small studio just off Gandhi Square in central Johannesburg, where they produced every kind of clothing and accessory to keep their bank balances and ambitions afloat.
“We landed one of our biggest projects producing costumes for a major dance production. We spent hours planning, designing, sourcing, selecting, sewing, stitching. Their budget was strict and the schedule was even tighter with virtually no room for error,” says Furstenburg.
But a disaster that would discredit him and Msibi was about to blaze through their studio.
Furstenburg was picking up materials from a supplier before heading to the studio that Wednesday morning when he received a frantic phone call from Msibi.
“Fire was really the only word I got from the conversation,” says Furstenburg.
He describes how surreal everything felt in the bright, winter morning light when he arrived at the studio.
“The thick smell of smoke hung throughout the building. Inside the studio, sooty black licks ran up the walls where the fire had devoured our machines, stock and the rails of costumes for the production,” says Furstenburg.
This was just three days before they had to deliver the costumes to their client. They were also not business savvy-enough at the time to have insurance.
“We sat sobbing on the ashy floor. The nausea swam in my stomach as the reality of the situation gained momentum in my head.”
“I called the client, trembling. The shouting started on the telephone and didn’t stop until they left our charcoal pile with a few pieces that had escaped the flames while stored in another studio,” Furstenburg recounts.
They were livid – understandably so.
“They were so outraged, because I was dealing with their dream as well. It was a costume production. They had a look of utter hatred and disgust on their faces,” he says.
They lost the clients.
“I spent two weeks in a blur of fear and guilt… Almost no one trusted us with their work and the landlord suspected that we were to blame for negligence,” says Furstenburg.
He went home, depressed for weeks, not knowing what his next move would be.
“I don’t have children but my business is my child. I have fought very hard for it. Seeing it die was the worst day of my life. I took about two weeks where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this anymore,” he says.
Fortunately, it was soon established that the fire was caused by old wiring. They salvaged what they could and Furstenburg decided to change his focus from production to styling – that is how he slowly managed to recover from what was his worst day.
He started from scratch, working on freelance projects making very little money.
“It was far from ideal and barely sustainable but somehow my resolve strengthened not to allow this incident to raze me permanently,” says Furstenburg.
The passion for designing handbags ignited within, in 2013, he equipped himself with business training at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship.
When he completed the three-month training, the center placed an order with him for 70 small, original-design messenger bags to be given as gifts to guests at an event held during one of FORBES AFRICA cover stars Richard Branson’s visit to South Africa.
“It could be said that someone else spotted what I had to offer before I had known exactly, and acting perhaps more in response to a veiled instruction than personal confidence at the time, I started making bags,” he says.
“Amusingly, whatever I might have lacked in self-belief was effectively offset by a desire to wow anyone and everyone and so I almost simultaneously entered the Independent Handbag Designer Awards of that year [in New York],” says Furstenburg.
It took four years of applications before he was accepted in 2016 into the All About the Logo by Guess Handbags category. He was the first South African applicant accepted – and the first to win. This opened doors for him locally and internationally.
Furstenburg is currently working on a procurement deal with an international airline. If successful, it will be the golden game changer that takes his business to the goal of netting an annual profit of $1 million by 2019.
Six years after his worst day, Furstenburg is not without challenges. But he is continuously taking it one step at a time, ensuring that the fire he has for designing world-class handbags never burns out.
“I must admit that I get a little breathless reflecting on the trajectory that the business has followed in the last 15 months, not least because of the risks we’ve survived and the gratitude I feel to those who’ve guided and supported me,” he says.
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